AUSTIN, Texas — A group of refugees who now call Texas home is using skills to help stop the spread of COVID-19.

  • Refugees sewing masks for health care workers
  • Part of Multicultural Refugee Coalition program
  • Some refugees create 25 masks a day

The textile manufacturing studio where they work is now largely closed, but they are sewing from home, creating masks for local health care providers. Following recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, public health experts are increasingly calling on people to wear masks or facial coverings outside.

The Multicultural Refugee Coalition aims to provide livelihood opportunities to displaced people resettling in Texas. The nonprofit works to achieve the mission through a commercial farm and a textile manufacturing studio, called the Open Arms Studio.

The Austin-based social enterprise has largely closed due to the coronavirus pandemic, but eight seamstresses who normally create clothes and quilts are working at home making masks. JOANN Fabrics has provided fabrics and materials to the coalition to help in the effort. 

“It’s incredibly important for folks to continue maintaining their paycheck as much as possible. It’s really thrilling to be able to provide these for the medical community locally and regionally, wherever people need them,” said coalition CEO Meg Erskine.

Refugee Maria Vung has been, on average, creating 25 masks a day. She is working from home, and helping her children navigate online learning. 

“When we’re staying home with our family, we’re staying safe. (Health care workers) have to go work. Our heath care workers are our heroes, so this is the best way we can provide (for) them,” Vung said. 



Sewing has allowed Vung to stitch together a career in Texas. After fleeing her war-torn home country of Myanmar with her husband and children, Vung started working at Open Arms Studio three years ago. She first learned the skill in Myanmar after encouragement from her parents, who are farmers. 

“It’s very important to me to have a job here— especially when we came— we left our parents in our country. We stay here, at the same time we have to still support our parents,” Vung, who is now Open Arm Studio’s sewing manager, said. 

Through the program, refugees take advantage of their expert-level trades they have already developed. Through the Open Arms Studio, staff works to provides sewing training and employ refugees at a fair wage. 

“One of the things that really inspired me when I was teaching ESLto refugees about 12 years ago is, I just heard over and over just how they wanted to contribute to their community with the skills that they brought. Many, many refugee women said, ‘I want to sew. I can sew, this is a skill that I have;’ that will really produce self-sufficiency for themselves and their families,” Erskine said. 

Under the stay-home order, seamstresses are able to collectively create 800 to 1,000 masks a week. 

“I’m so proud of our community that help in this crisis. This makes our team members stay connected by making masks and stay home with family at the same time, helping others,” Vung said. 

If you are interested in donating a mask to a health care provider or buying your own visit the Multicultural Refugee Coalition website